Common Issues Couples Bring to Relationship Counselling
Relationships are never easy and all relationships go through difficult periods. To maintain a relationship with a single partner is one of the hardest things we do as humans, but the rewards that come from deep connection, intimacy and a sense of belonging are worth the hard work.
While every marriage and committed relationship has its own unique issues and problems, there are several concerns that couples commonly bring to relationship and couples counselling:
- Frequent arguing or lack of communication,
- Inability to reach a specific decision,
- Feelings of jealousy and insecurity within a relationship, and
- Reluctance to commit to the relationship.
One of the hardest things we do as humans is be in relationship with a single partner. These relationships are fraught with periodic difficulties that may be rare occurrences or may be frequent problems. While every marriage and committed relationship has its own unique issues and problems, there are several concerns that couples commonly bring to relationship and couples counselling:
1. WHY DO WE ARGUE ALL THE TIME?
Repeated arguments are common within romantic relationships because of the unique interdependent nature of these relationships (1). As well as being emotionally tied, partners share a home, finances and family. Therefore, one person’s actions or words can have a huge impact on the other person.
In some instances, arguments can be healthy if they help to reveal and resolve disparities in thinking, values and emotions. More often however, couples find themselves arguing in a way which closes off communication. A common pattern is the demand/withdraw communication style (2). This involves one partner asking something of the other partner, criticising them or demanding they change. In response, the other partner withdraws, goes silent or stonewalls. This pattern can escalate quickly into heated arguments, where both partners feel frustrated, hurt, angry and unloved.
Sometimes our feelings of frustration develop during periods of stress, such as a heavy workload, financial difficulties, or the birth of a new baby. At these times, minor annoyances can become the fuel for feelings of substantial dissatisfaction within a relationship: things like leaving out the butter, not cleaning up, or backseat driving can infuriate us. These minor issues simmer at the surface ready to explode into an argument. However, what lies beneath these annoyances is often something more significant, such as a fear that we have different values from our partner, that our partner will abandon us or a sense of not being heard or understood.
Some people feel like they have tried to raise issues calmly but their needs still aren’t being met. The frustration this invokes can easily lead to arguments because unresolved frustration often turns into anger. A relationship therapist can help couples learn to manage and avoid this through improved communication skills, which greatly improve couple satisfaction and reduce conflict (3).
Couples who find themselves in a frequent cycle of arguments need to take action to lessen conflict within the relationship and develop better and kinder ways of communicating with one another. Taking the time to listen carefully and calmly to each other and learning to respect each other’s needs will create a calmer and more loving environment in which your relationship can flourish and you can enjoy each other again.
2. MY PARTNER AND I NEVER TALK ANYMORE
Constant arguments and bickering aren’t the only negative communication pattern that can arise in relationships. Some couples don’t argue because they barely speak at all. This happens when one or both parties in a relationship react to their relationship problems by avoiding them, by closing off from one another and not talking.
This lack of communication forces the couple to withdraw from one another and causes an emotional void to develop between them. Whilst couples in this situation might rarely fight, their problems are generally left unresolved and their capacity to connect with each other in an intimate and meaningful way becomes threatened. Couples in this situation often report feeling lost and lonely in their relationships.
Couples therapy with a qualified couples counsellor or psychologist can help to restore lost intimacy and help a couple to communicate again in a positive and connected way.
3. HELP! WE CAN’T MAKE AN IMPORTANT DECISION!
Sometimes a couple has a very strong and secure relationship, but they have a particular decision to make which they can’t seem to agree on. Common problem decisions include:
- whether or not to get married?
- whether or not to have a baby?
- where to live?
- how to deal with in-laws?
Many couples who have hit a problem decision such as the ones listed above can be helped with only a few sessions with a relationship counsellor to help them talk through their desires, doubts and concerns about a particular decision, and to help them reach compromise. This can be an excellent way to ensure transparency in the decision-making process and ensure underlying tensions or beliefs about the decision are addressed and understood to avoid arguments in the future.
4. WHAT DO I DO IF MY PARTNER CHEATED ON ME?
Infidelity can put a huge tear in the fabric of a relationship. It can leave one person feeling deeply violated and betrayed, the other feeling guilt and even anger. The reality is, infidelity is an issue many couples have to face. Studies show that approximately 20-25% of married couples experience infidelity at some stage during their marriage (4). Sometimes this marks the end of a relationship but with support, many couples can come out the other side stronger and closer.
When a couple who have experienced infidelity seek relationship or couples counselling, the breakdown of trust is a huge issue that needs to be addressed. Couples counselling is an opportunity to examine how trust has been violated in the relationship and how it can be rebuilt. It is also a chance to look at the underlying reasons as to why the affair happened in the first place. Getting to the core of the issues is an important step in the process towards healing and forgiveness.
Relationship therapy is also a place where couples can talk in a safe and calm environment about the feelings that have arisen as a result of the infidelity. Talking at home without the mediation of a trained couples counsellor can often result in arguments, slammed doors or silence, especially when people are feeling emotionally wounded and angry. Talking about your feelings in the sanctuary of a relationship counsellor’s office allows for the full expression of hurt, anger and betrayal without being afraid of not being heard or that larger arguments will erupt.
One of the issues that may be raised in relationship counselling after an affair is whether or not the relationship can be salvaged and continued. It is possible for a couple to overcome an affair and resume a positive and fulfilling relationship. However, some couples discover that an affair is a symptom of a larger problem that they really have no desire to mend or repair. If this is the case, then a couples counsellor or psychologist can help mediate a separation and help the couple end the relationship in a healthy manner.
5. HOW DO I DEAL WITH A JEALOUS PARTNER?
One of the issues commonly presented in relationship counselling is that of jealousy. While mild jealousy is usually harmless, more extreme or chronic jealousy can have serious consequences. It can affect the quality, commitment and satisfaction of a relationship (5). In more extreme circumstances it can lead to controlling behaviours and even violence (6).
Jealousy is usually caused by feelings of insecurity on the part of the person who is jealous – either they feel insecure about the relationship, their partner or themselves. Sometimes feelings of insecurity within a relationship may be well founded, and caused by specific behaviour of the other partner. In these circumstances, relationship counselling may provide an excellent opportunity to examine the behaviours that are leading to the jealous feelings.
More often than not however, jealous feelings are caused by inherent and deeply held insecurities of the person who experiences the jealousy (7). In these circumstances, the person is likely to feel jealous and fearful no matter what their partner does or doesn’t do and the couples counsellor may suggest individual counselling to work specifically with the underlying causes of a person’s jealousy.
If jealousy remains an issue for a couple, the therapist or psychologist can help the couple find ways to support each other and join closer together to reinforce feelings of security for both people in the relationship.
6. WHY DO I FEEL LIKE MY PARTNER HAS ONE FOOT OUT THE DOOR?
Commitment issues are another topic that many couples struggle with. The reasons for these issues are varied but often, commitment issues are rooted in a fear of what might change if a true commitment is made.
In some cases, there may be a fear to commit because we are happy with the relationship as it is and don’t want to change anything at all. Some people feel immense pressure when it comes to expectations around what a wife or husband “should” be like and what’s expected of them if they take on this role. They may also worry about the automatic expectation to become parents.
In other cases, reluctance to commit may be rooted in what someone observed in their own families growing up. People who have experienced parental divorce are more likely to have insecurities and reservations around commitment. Parental divorce can affect someone’s ability to trust in a partner or in the permanence of the relationship and can make commitment for difficult (8).
In order to help with these issues, a relationship counsellor may ask about beliefs and experiences related to previous relationships, including how relationships in your family of origin were treated and how well they worked.
The goal of relationship counselling is to determine if there is an issue regarding commitment or if this is a perception that is based in assumptions and expectations, either personal or societal. Once the root of the issue has been determined, the therapist will help both members of the couple to work through fears, reservations and unrealistic expectations associated with commitment. This may involve building trust and security within the relationship, identifying core values or developing strategies to maintain a sense of self and independence within a committed relationship.
Alternatively, in some cases, there truly is an issue with commitment and then relationship counselling may come down to making a choice of whether or not to accept the situation as it is or decide that a commitment in the form you want or need is necessary.
WHERE DO I GO TO GET RELATIONSHIP COUNSELLING?
Above is a brief discussion of several issues that are commonly brought to couples therapy, but these are not the only issues that can be discussed in relationship counselling. If you and your partner are struggling to resolve problems or reach decisions in your relationship, or you want to learn how to connect more deeply and emotionally, you may find that talking with a professional is helpful. For more information or to schedule a consultation with a qualified counsellor, contact Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors Sydney.
Bevan, J. L., Finan, A., & Kaminsky, A. (2008). Modeling serial arguments in close relationships: The serial argument process model. Human Communication Research, 34(4), 600-624.
Fournier, B., Brassard, A., & Shaver, P. R. (2011). Adult attachment and male aggression in couple relationships: The demand-withdraw communication pattern and relationship satisfaction as mediators. Journal of interpersonal violence, 26(10), 1982-2003.
Blanchard, V. L., Hawkins, A. J., Baldwin, S. A., & Fawcett, E. B. (2009). Investigating the effects of marriage and relationship education on couples’ communication skills: a meta-analytic study. Journal of Family Psychology, 23(2), 203.
Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2017). Infidelity in romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 70-74.
Martínez-León, N. C., Peña, J. J., Salazar, H., García, A., & Sierra, J. C. (2017). A systematic review of romantic jealousy in relationships. terapia psicolÓgica.
Harris, C. R. (2000). Psychophysiological responses to imagined infidelity: The specific innate modular view of jealousy reconsidered. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 1082-1091. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2062
DiBello, A., Rodríguez, L., Hadden, B., & Neighbors, C. (2015). The green eyed monster in the bottler: Relationship contingent self-esteem, romantic jealousy, and alcohol-related problems. Addictive Behaviors, 49, 52-48. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2015.05.008
Jacquet, S. E., & Surra, C. A. (2001). Parental divorce and premarital couples: Commitment and other relationship characteristics. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(3), 627-638.